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How to Start Your Own Podcast

How to Start Your Own Podcast
Photo Source: Jesse Balgley

On March 11, 2014, Wayne Frazier drove his 1980s Jeep Wrangler through the Valley in Los Angeles. It was a nice day—high 60s/low 70s—so he had the top down, like he often did for eight or nine months out of the year. He picked up his co-host, Natalie Lipka, and they drove up Interstate 405, wind roaring in their ears.

Soon, they ran into an obstacle—a huge hill—and the old car had a hard time hacking it. “It was like driving a go-kart on the interstate,” Frazier says. He thinks people walking could’ve passed them. Lipka probably begged him to let her drive. “We’re going to be late,” she thought. “It’s a big interview!”

What was at stake? A phone call with Bob Nelson, Academy Award and Golden Globe nominee and screenwriter of the motion picture “Nebraska.” For Episode 31 of Frazier’s and Lipka’s own podcast, “Hollywood Close-up,” which aims to demystify the entertainment business for both the hosts (who are actors) and their listeners. They talk to writers, directors, actors, casting directors, industry heavyweights, award winners, and people just starting out.

Their recording venue, the Network Studios, resembles a soft pink cross between a house and a small castle. Inside, they sat before microphones on a table the studio’s creator and founder built in his backyard. The show music began, and, like scene partners, they made eye contact, making sure they were on the same page.

Then they shook hands—and interviewed Nelson. Their prime takeaway was the fact that it still took this successful man years and years to put his film together.

“It puts in your head that, ‘Hey, we’re not the only ones that are struggling; everyone’s out there struggling and waiting,’ ” says Frazier. “That was early on in our ‘Hollywood Close-up’ version of the show, and it really stuck.”

Frazier and Lipka successfully started their own podcast as performing arts professionals—and you can, too. Their biggest gains? Lipka says it’s the opportunity to find their voices as actors, as well as grow their personal brands.

For Frazier, podcasting has upped his confidence no matter who he’s talking to, especially when it comes to film and casting directors. Plus, it’s a constant learning experience. “It’s almost like our own little class every day,” says Frazier.

If you’re an actor thinking about starting your own podcast, here’s a comprehensive how-to guide all the way from dipping in a toe in the recording waters to diving headfirst into audience building and sponsorships.

Getting in the know.

Narrowing it down.

Gearing up.

Recording time.

Taking next steps.

What is a podcast?

Podcasting expert Daniel J. Lewis first discovered the medium because of his long commute. He’d tried local radio, audiobooks, and music, but nothing stuck until 2005 when he heard someone raving about podcasts, which are essentially radio show-esque audio series that can be downloaded and streamed from the internet in your car and on your personal phones and devices. Upon realizing podcasts catered content to very specific audiences, he couldn’t wait to find his niche. His first venture? A clean comedy podcast about his life as a bachelor. Then, in 2010, he switched gears into hosting “The Audacity to Podcast,” which teaches newbies how to get started and run their own shows.

What can I learn from listening to other podcasts?

The medium is unique, so it’s important to do some research before diving right into your project. One key nuance when it comes to camera and stage acting is that, generally, stage is primed for acting and projecting “bigger,” while the camera picks up subtlety best. Just like those two forms of performance, podcasting has its own nuances—ones that you can pick up by starting out first as a listener. Shows like “The Audacity to Podcast,” “School of Podcasting,” and “Podcasters’ Roundtable” can help teach the ins and outs of getting started on your own project.

Why should I start a podcast?

So, what do you have to gain from starting your own podcast? “Anybody who has a name or brand they want to build can benefit,” says Ray Ortega, host of “The Podcaster’s Studio.” It puts you into a space in which you’re not available otherwise. The show is another forum in which to find you; it establishes credibility and authority about your topic.

Podcasters are exposed to a brand-new audience of people who are actively searching for content in a chosen area. On top of that, there’s the idea that it will get you more gigs. “No one will get a job in a creative field these days without putting out content,” Ortega says, speaking from experience. He had a day job for two years and produced his own podcast on the side. For the last 10 years, he’s gotten paid to produce his show because the right people came across the side gig.

Your podcast can be a vehicle for creating a portfolio for your art or skill, and when it comes to acting, this can mean showcasing your “type” or personality, painting pictures with words, or exhibiting your range in voice acting. The show could also aid in search engine optimization (SEO) and propel you closer to the top results when people look for an expert in the field. Plus, it’s still the “early days” of podcasting, so there’s time to get in on the ground floor.

“Working on a podcast gave me a new tool in my toolkit,” says writer and producer Jessica Weisberg, who worked with “Serial.” “We’re living in a moment where, if you’re a storyteller, you have to be medium agnostic”—meaning you have to be comfortable with film, TV, web shorts, and podcasts. Once you figure out what you want to say, you can decide which platform is best for bringing it out. Figuring that out starts with taking a topic and narrowing it down.

How do I decide what my podcast is about?

When it comes to turning an overarching topic into a niche subject, Caleb Zane Huett and Nick Splendorr—hosts of “You’re Too Show: A Sonic the Hedgehog Fancast”—have some real experience. Both have theater backgrounds and a passion for video games, but they knew starting a podcast about the latter wouldn’t be their best bet. One Google search revealed endless amounts of video game podcasts; the most popular ones were created by people actually in the industry.

The key is to aim to do something either differently or better than everyone else. Huett and Splendorr settled on the bizarre-but-captivating Sonic the Hedgehog character and launched their show’s first episode in October 2016. They, like Sonic, are still going strong.

“The power of podcasting is the niche,” says Lewis. In radio, the goal is to get as large an audience as possible over the airwaves, so content must have a broad appeal with categories like politics, finance, news, sports, and relationships.

Podcasters, on the other hand, can drill down and focus on one specific aspect of an area—and it’s better that way. “The wider or broader the topic, the harder it will be to build an audience,” says Lewis. That’s because there are so many other general-topic podcasts, many of them hosted by celebrities.

For example, “acting” might not be the best subject choice. Instead, you could focus the show around acting in a certain genre, for women in a certain age range, or about, say, longform improv. By choosing a niche, you’ll end up with a smaller but more loyal and passionate audience—and there’s a good chance you’ll become known as an expert on the subject.

First thing’s first: To figure out your broader topic or area of interest, choose something you’re excited about, something you know. “For us, we know what it’s like to be actors,” says Lipka. “We’re doing it every day; we want to talk about it, we want to share our experiences.”

Once you’ve got your general topic nailed down, how do you figure out your niche? Seek out what others like you—with similar overarching show topics—are putting out there. Take note of what you like and what you’d change about the way they do their shows, and you’ll be able to apply that to your own down the road.

Also look for gaps in coverage. What isn’t being talked about that should be? This could be your golden ticket. And if you do find a show that’s seems similar to your chosen niche, check to see if it’s still released on a consistent basis. Even if it is, your shows will be different due to host personalities.

“Your podcast is a gift, so start by figuring out: What the heck does your audience want?” poses Dave Jackson, podcast coach and founder of “School of Podcasting.” He says that when people get on the internet, they’re looking for one of two things: help or entertainment (or both). Create your podcast accordingly and with your desired audience in mind.

For example, if you drew “Howard from accounting” for a Secret Santa gift exchange at your day job, you’d first ask people who know him what he’s into, right? Jackson says it’s vital to do the same for your audience. Get to know them through Facebook groups, subreddits, LinkedIn groups, meetups, and other avenues.

Who should I make my podcast with?

When it comes to figuring out whether you’ll have a co-host, weekly guests, or fly solo, look to your strengths. Have you been told you’re a good storyteller? Are you high-energy, focused, and good at speaking directly to someone even if you can’t see them? Or are you more comfortable in conversation mode with someone else to bounce things off of? No one format is better than another; it’s all about the best way for you to share your message.

Doing a show alone means having complete creative control and autonomy over the schedule, but it also means that the brunt of the work (and self-discipline) is on you. Bringing in a partner means working with someone else’s schedule and ideas, but you’ll also be able to split the work and keep each other motivated. If your goal is adding one or more co-hosts it’s most important to select people you trust completely and can have a genuine conversation with (without being self-conscious).

The rules of improv apply here, too; it should be a safe space where you won’t feel judged by your partner(s) for taking a risk, no matter how it turns out.

What kind of commitment do I have to put into this? How often should I be publishing episodes?

Our sources couldn’t stress the importance of consistency enough. “As long as you’re making something pretty good on a schedule that people can expect, you don’t have to worry about making a perfect product,” says Huett. Your audience has to trust you, and the easiest pattern for people to get used to (and keep track of) is probably a weekly one. For example, knowing they can listen to the latest episode of your podcast every Monday walking home from work will likely reel in a repeat listener.

To give yourself a head start, record a few episodes in advance. It’s also a good idea to make some “disciplinary” decisions ahead of time to free up your brainpower for creativity instead of logistics. Keep the same show format per episode (like intro, interview, monologue/story, guest, fan comments, outro).

Speaking of show format, you can go beyond speaking to bring the podcast alive. If your show focuses on your audition experiences, consider bringing a recorder and interviewing other auditioners about their funniest experiences and preparation strategies.

People love content with a lot of change or variety, so you could add a little music here and there or bring in another voice to break things up. “The soliloquy works well for Shakespeare but has its limitations in podcasting,” says Jonathan Halls, a media-production trainer.

What equipment do I need to create a professional-grade podcast?

Halls remembers the day he heard the newspaper he was working for in Europe spent $40,000 on sound equipment. He was shocked. “Fifty dollars is all you need to sound fantastic, and it’s the skill in how you do it that will make the podcast come alive,” he says.

No one listens to a podcast only because of the microphone and gear. If you’ve got quality sound but the content isn’t up to snuff, you’ll still have a hard time growing listenership. “Bad quality can drive away an audience, but the main point of gear is to help you get your voice out there,” says Lewis.

You’ll need a microphone, a pop filter, headphones and editing software (and depending on your show needs, a mixer and digital recorder).

The microphone.
“Your mic is that one investment that’s going to make the biggest determination if your podcast sounds good or not,” says Ortega. To make sure your content is heard and understood, invest in gear that gets the job done. You can always upgrade later.

Three experts we interviewed separately each recommended the Audio-Technica ATR2100 microphone, which can plug right into a computer but also has an XLR jack (meaning if you ever want to plug it into a digital recorder or need to upgrade to a mixer, you can keep the same mic). It usually costs around $60 and has a lifetime warranty in the U.S.

The next step up is the Electro-Voice RE320 microphone, an XLR-only mic that offers extra clarity and crispness but requires a mixer and costs around $300.  (Lewis compares the difference between it and the Audio-Technica mic to “sanding the undersides of drawers or painting the undersides of chairs” versus leaving them.)

Before you spend the extra cash, know that the average listener wouldn’t notice much of a difference between the two, especially if he or she didn’t hear them back to back. Most important is the way you use the microphone—doing a mic check, being close but not too close, recording in a quiet environment, talking a little “off-axis” to avoid popping sounds, etc.

And the minute you buy a microphone, go ahead and order a “pop filter” to protect the air going into the microphone. They cost about $10 and make all the difference when it comes to avoiding strange rumbling sounds. Not convinced? Put a hand in front of your mouth, say “peanut butter,” and feel the bursts of air coming out. That’s what pop filters protect against.

Mixers + digital recorders.
Next up: mixers and digital recorders. You don’t really need to buy a mixer until you have multiple sources of input on your show (think co-hosts, guests, music, etc.). Its role is to combine different audio signals and adjust volume levels, timbres, and dynamics.

When you’re shopping for a mixer, Behringer, Mackie, and Allen & Heath all make good-quality products, says Lewis, usually for $100 to $200. As far as digital recorders go, you’ll need one if you’re ever in a situation where you need to record without relying on a computer, like if you go “on location” or if your computer is slow or noisy. The Zoom H5, H6, and H4n Pro are all good choices and range from around $200 to $300, depending on the model.

What software do I need?

Sound editing can seem overwhelming, but it’s the same idea as editing text: You’re still copying, pasting, selecting, and deleting, just with waveforms instead of Word docs. When it comes to choosing software, keep in mind that what you learn on is often what you’ll stay with. It’s important to pick an interface you feel comfortable with so you keep producing episodes.

The first option—comparable to a used car—is Audacity’s free audio-editing software. It does the job, but Ortega says it’s not as user-friendly as other choices. Two experts recommended Hindenburg Journalist editing software, the middle-of-the-road option, which is designed specifically for editing spoken-word content. The regular version costs $100, and the Pro version is $300.

The Cadillac of editing software? Adobe Audition, says Ortega—although it’s only presently available via pricey Adobe Creative Cloud subscription. (For the single app, it’ll cost you $19.99 per month if you sign up for a year upfront or $29.99 for month-to-month.)

Do I need a script for my podcast?

If a podcaster started out his or show with what he or she had for breakfast that morning, you’d probably lose interest pretty quickly. But what if that person said, “I’ve been experimenting with diets but haven’t lost the weight I wanted to until recently from changing this one breakfast habit. I have more energy, I’m losing weight, and it’s all because of this one breakfast decision.” Now you’re probably curious, right? It’s all in the way the information is presented.

Think: Are you telling a story because it’ll make people laugh, engage, or be entertained? Or are you telling it just because it happened to you or it’s a funny inside joke? The latter isn’t a good reason, says Lewis.

Now is the time to decide whether you work best with or without a script. It’s probably a good idea to start with one, and, as an actor, you probably have a lot of experience. Don’t worry about sounding stilted. “Scripts are only bad when they’re poorly written,” says Halls.

While writing, remember it’ll be heard, not read. Audio content lends itself better to narrative content rather than technical facts, so keep the stories rich and the voices conversational. Know that short words and sentences reign supreme. If your sentence is over 10 words, shorten it.

Powerful—but not complicated—words are great here (for example, they “slashed” the budget instead of “reduced or “cut”). Try to avoid dependent clauses; they make the brain pause in the middle of a thought, which isn’t ideal for audio. And keep in mind that when you look at the script, it’ll look extremely bland, especially if you’re someone who likes literature and writing. But it needs to be simple for the brain to take in auditorily.

“We can read so much better than we can hear,” says Halls. Read the script out loud a few times to make sure it sounds natural, and feel free to mark it up with underlines for emphasis and slashes for pauses.

How can I be conversational and engaging?

Speaking of speaking, when you talk into the microphone, visualize someone you’re close to, and imagine you’re speaking straight to him or her, says Halls. It’ll frame your conversation and make people feel as if the conversation is specifically with them. The show persona you create for yourself is powerful. When done well, it’ll be warm and genuine, and when done poorly, it could be bothersome or cheesy.

If you’re still having a hard time visualizing your “other”—remember this from acting class?—literally create one. Draw a cartoon or cut out a magazine clipping of the kind of person you imagine could be a key member of your audience, and assign meaning to them, like hobbies and interests. It’ll shape the way you speak.

Remember to “be nice to yourself,” says Huett. If it’s your first project, it might not be that great in the beginning, but if you commit to your product, you’ll keep gaining fans who come along with you for the ride.

Your first priority can be to have a good time, and your second priority can be to learn things along the way, hone your craft, and build a portfolio of sorts. The last priority should be recognition, because that should come naturally with a consistent and quality show. Try to be okay with the worrisome “what if no one listens?” scenario, and do the project primarily for you. Also, don’t look at listener numbers too early—you don’t want to get discouraged, and they’ll come with time.

One of the most surprising—and great—parts of podcasting is becoming part of the weekly routine of people you’ve never even met. “I had one guy say, ‘You’re with me every Monday on the drive to the feed store,’ ” says Jackson. “I share a little about myself because the more you let them in, the more you build that relationship.”

What should I name my podcast?

What’s in a name? A lot, as far as podcasts are concerned. Lewis has a test every show name should have to pass, and it starts with running the name by someone who knows nothing about what you’re trying to create. Ask that person, “What do you think a podcast with this name would be about?” If he or she gets anywhere close, it passed the test.

For example, one of Jackson’s clients considered naming his show “After the Darkness,” but after hearing people’s first thoughts, he went with “Life After Blindness” instead—much more straightforward.

Before settling, do some basic searches on the iTunes podcast directory and look at domain names to make sure no one else is already using the title. (The more unique a name you’re using, the more likely you can claim trademark ownership over it.)

While you’re at it, go ahead and set up the domain name and social media accounts and start engaging with your audience.

What should my cover art be?

For cover art, the aptly named graphic design marketplace 99Designs.com will give you 99 design choices for about $300, while PodcastDesigns.com will use your guidance to make one design option for about $60.

You can also give your show a three- or four-word “tagline” on the artwork to give more information and hook people into pressing play.

Where should I publish my podcast?

When it comes time to submit, iTunes and the Apple podcast app are key. You can also upload on Stitcher, TuneIn, Google Play Music (in North America), iHeartRadio, and your own website. For simplicity’s sake, when you direct people to your podcast, direct them to your own site, which will link to all of those places.

How will my podcast find an audience?

When it comes to building an audience, know that “podcasts grow steadily but slowly,” says Ortega. The ideal place to reach your audience is within your niche via Facebook groups, subreddits, forums, Twitter hashtags, etc. It’s vital not to spam these areas with self-promotion, like, “Hey, check out me and my awesome thing!” says Lewis. Instead, go there to grow relationships, build a reputation and participate in conversations. When it’s relevant, you can say, “Hey, I have an episode on this,” or “You might be interested in this episode, it’s relevant because of [XYZ].”

You might even be able to use these forums to discover new ideas. Let’s say you have a dog-walking podcast; join a relevant Facebook group and see what people are saying about retractable versus non-retractable leashes, then do an episode on that exact topic.

Afterward, you can comment and say, “I loved this question so much that I made an episode about it; here’s the link.” That way, you’re responding with completely relevant content and engaging with the community. You’ll become known as an authority on the subject and sow trust. When that audience realizes you have a podcast, all you’ll need to do is show them where to find it.

It’s also a good idea to reach out and talk to people you think would be interested in your show and ask them to come on as guests. If you do a good job with them, word will spread. Go to events where you know key players will be and genuinely engage with them about their projects and your show. And don’t forget to leverage any platform you already have to promote your podcast, whether it’s a newsletter, website, Twitter account, or any sort of live event, plus your email signature and business cards.

“Beyond that, just show up,” says Ortega. “Podcasting is a long game—it’s quality content over time.” The best thing you can ask your audience to do is tell other people about the podcast; shows usually grow primarily through word of mouth.

“Anytime you’re making anything, as long as you’re making something good, and you do it consistently, and you tell a few people a week about it, it’ll grow,” says Huett. Know that your fanbase will likely grow as your backlog does, since many people want to follow a show they can trust will come out every week and won’t stop cold turkey.

Can I make money from my podcast?

OK, let’s get down to business: How can you make money off your podcast? “Your first question should be, ‘How do I get good?’ ” says Jackson. “[It’s about] monetizing your audience, but right now you don’t have one. Focus on getting one.” With that in mind, there are a few different routes you can go once you’ve built up a significant fanbase.

The first route is sponsorship, but Lewis says to make it worth your time to get one, you should have 5,000 or more downloads per episode. Sponsors usually pay a certain amount (like $25) per thousand downloads per episode, so even if you have an audience of 5,000 people, that’d only be about $125 per episode. If you do decide to follow this path, you can either reach out directly (if you’re great at selling yourself) or have someone else do it on your behalf. Libsyn and Blubrry are companies that host your podcast media directly and also help arrange sponsors.

Another route to monetization is asking your audience directly: “If you feel you got some value from this podcast, would you consider giving some value back?” It’s great because if you lose one audience member who gives $5 a month, only one Abraham Lincoln was on the line, not stacks of Benjamins.

Patreon is probably the best platform for crowdfunding because it makes setting up recurring donations easy, and it’s a good idea to create some sort of incentive for those who give (like a weekly emailed blooper reel or shout-outs on the show). You can also sell your audience your own product or service. For example, if you do a podcast about crowdfunding, offer your services as a freelance consultant.

The third money-making option is affiliate links. An affiliate relationship is different from a sponsorship in that if people buy what you recommend through your promo code or link, then you make a percentage of what they spend.

The easiest place to start for any sort of podcast topic is Amazon’s affiliate program, since it sells everything from television memorabilia to music equipment. (Lewis makes enough on affiliate links from Amazon alone to pay his mortgage.) Many sites have these programs, and if you’re interested in one that doesn’t, reach out and ask if they’d be open.

“Today’s companies are discovering billboard advertising isn’t working,” says Lewis. Thousands of people from all different walks of life drive past billboards, and for many of them, the advertisement likely won’t apply. Even though podcasts have smaller audiences, they’re 100-percent-relevant ones for certain products and services, like a hiking boots ad on a hiking podcast). The key here is making your affiliate link references relevant and within the context of the conversation—not during a commercial break.

Want to act on screen while pursuing your podcast dreams? Check out Backstage’s TV audition listings!

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